Fêtes galantes I: Clair de lune

Voulez-vous triompher des belles, c. 1714-17

Voulez vous triompher des belles?, c. 1714-17
The Wallace Collection

Votre âme est un paysage choisi
Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques
Jouant du luth et dansant et quasi
Tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques.

Tout en chantant sur le mode mineur
L’amour vainqueur et la vie opportune
Ils n’ont pas l’air de croire à leur bonheur
Et leur chanson se mêle au clair de lune,

Au calme clair de lune triste et beau,
Qui fait rêver les oiseaux dans les arbres
Et sangloter d’extase les jets d’eau,
Les grands jets d’eau sveltes parmi les marbres.

Paul Verlaine’s second collection of poems Fêtes galantes, published in 1869, was deeply infused with the spirit and imagery of Watteau’s art, then all the rage in the bohemian artistic circles of Paris. The title itself immediately invokes the artist: when Watteau applied for membership of the French Academy in 1717 the genre of Fête galante was named and defined especially to accommodate the work of a genius that did not fit into any previously accepted category. In 22 short lyrics Verlaine traversed Watteau’s world of languorous melancholy and amourous deceit with images superbly suspended in the timeless amber of his music. The little book, almost unnoticed at the time of its creation, would eventually be hailed as a classic of French and indeed of world poetry, conferring Watteau’s vision to many generations of readers and bearing ripe fruit among such composers as Debussy, Fauré and Hahn who made matchless mélodies of his endlessly elusive images. If only Watteau could have heard them!

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